The more things change, the more they stay the same. There was a different system, a different starting line-up and a different ex-player in a club suit and tie inside the technical area but, for the fourth of Manchester United’s five games in Group F to date, there was a crucial late goal from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Another Ronaldo late show against Villarreal and a welcome first goal for Jadon Sancho in the dying embers ensured Michael Carrick’s first game in caretaker charge saw him apply the finishing touches to arguably the one thing that was going well for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, securing passage to the Champions League knockout stages.
Before anyone at Old Trafford gets ahead of themselves, though, this was not the type of display seen during Solskjaer’s first games as an interim that saw him catapulted into the job permanently. For long periods, it was more like the days of Louis van Gaal only without the possession. United still required David de Gea to come up with a handful of important saves, without which this game could have taken on a different complexion.
But even if it may not be saying much, there was a greater sense of control and solidity about United’s play than at Vicarage Road. You hesitate to say that the healing process has started, given that this is the same group of players that have performed miserably of late, overseen by exactly the same coaching set-up Solskjaer aside, but at least the mood around Carrington over the coming days will be different.
Carrick presented himself as the continuity candidate while previewing this first game as caretaker, yet more changed than many expected. Anthony Martial came in from the cold to play up top, with Ronaldo initially on the left wing. Marcus Rashford was left among the substitutes, Sancho in the starting line-up. But most surprisingly of all, Donny van de Beek was finally handed his first start since mid-September at the expense of Bruno Fernandes.
Fernandes had only failed to start three of United’s league and European games since the beginning of last season, all of which could be put down to rest and rotation rather than him falling out of favour. Given this was Carrick’s first team selection, it was harder to know the motive. “I love Bruno, he’s a fantastic player, great person, ran his socks off but there’s a team to be picked,” was the caretaker’s non-committal answer.
United’s shape was just as hard to pin down. Whether it was intentionally fluid or unintentionally all over the place, the only certainties were that this was not Solskjaer’s usual 4-2-3-1 and Ronaldo’s reluctance to track back out wide was pulling the rest of his teammates out of whatever the intended formation. Ronaldo and Martial eventually swapped places and there was finally a sense of order, as the Carrick interregnum settled into a 4-3-3 in possession and a 4-4-2 out of it.
While United found their bearings, Villarreal threatened. De Gea would have his palms stung several times over the course of the evening, first by Moi Gomez after Scott McTominay’s loose giveaway of possession. Yeremi Pino hit the side-netting shortly after, having stepped too easily around Alex Telles – another brought in from the cold, replacing Luke Shaw who was left at home with concussion.
Shaw’s absence and the benching of Fernandes hurt United. Without their two most creative players, all Carrick’s side could muster going forward in the early stages was an off-target McTominay header. Midway through the first half, Villarreal’s share of the play climbed up to 73 per cent. If this was Carrickball, it was a departure from his playing days when he considered possession nine-tenths of the law. In all honesty, it did not make for particularly good viewing.
At least De Gea was managing to stay awake. A superb one-handed parry of Manu Trigueros’ shot just before the half-hour mark was followed by another after the break. United had improved as the first half went on, with some glimpses of a burgeoning understanding between Sancho and Van de Beek down the right, yet still their only efforts on Geronimo Rulli’s goal were two tame Ronaldo attempts.
Things only really changed once Fernandes was introduced after 66 minutes. United finally started to have promising spells of possession deep in Villarreal territory, demonstrated by a cute one-two between the Portuguese and Sancho that should have resulted in the £73million signing scoring his first United goal. That would have to wait as, inevitably, Ronaldo would have his moment first.
And while this was yet another late Ronaldo winner, it was made possible by the much-maligned Fred. His eager pressing of Etienne Capoue foiled Rulli’s attempt to play out from the back, immediately springing Ronaldo through on goal. The finish was sublime, looped over the top of the stranded Rulli. Ronaldo has now been responsible for six of United’s eight goals in this group stage.
In the final minute before stoppage time, Sancho made things look comfortable, even if that had not entirely been the story of the game. Still, it was a fine, flowing move, taking in substitutes Rashford and Fernandes then finished off the underside of the crossbar by a player that the remaining members of United’s coaching staff have been desperate to see score.
They were desperate, too, for this night to be the start of a turnaround in their fortunes. It is far too early to claim that, but it at least brought a place in the last 16, a rare clean sheet, and perhaps a fresh start.